Chapter 1: Echoes
click on picture for larger image: these pictures are the one which appear in the book for this chapter.
The Copper River and Northwestern Railway--Can’t Run and Never WillOn November 10, 1938 a large, mixed freight and passenger consist headed by engine number 74, a 95 ton ALCO-Brooks Mikado-type engine, pulled out of the Kennecott mill site for the last time. In the twenty-seven years since the railroad began full operation, the CRNW hauled 154,270 car loads of ore 196 miles to the Alaska Steamship Lines wharf at Cordova. Those train loads consisted of over four and a half million tons of ore averaging thirteen percent copper, bringing gross revenues of 207 million dollars to the Kennecott Corporation and a net profit of about 100 million dollars, exceeding in monetary value the total production of the Fairbanks, Nome, and Willow Creek (Talkeetna Mountain) gold districts. The original construction of the railway, combined with the development of the Kennecott mine system, represented the largest private expenditure of money in Alaska during the entire time it was a territory. Only recently has this historic project finally been overshadowed by the privately-financed Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (the Alyeska construction project) of 1974-77.
With 1938 drawing to a close, the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, known affectionately as the "Can’t Run and Never Will," was about to end its nearly three decade-long life-span, fading away to become another part of the rich history of Alaska. No longer would a steam locomotive follow the Nizina, Chitina, and Copper Rivers on iron rails to Cordova.
All of the great steam engines, as well as the large, vintage 1910-era wooden passenger cars, and most of the freight equipment and maintenance stock, including the huge rotary snowplows, would be shipped off into historic oblivion.
This railroad was the center of life for the Copper River valley almost until the Second World War, drastically impacting the lives of those who had been there from the beginning--the Ahtnas, or "people of the great river." During its existence the CRNW Railway served the richest lode mine of any kind ever developed in Alaska until well after World War II. The railroad brought a level of civilization to the valley which has never been restored. It was directly responsible for the creation of the communities of Kennecott, McCarthy, Blackburn, Strelna and Chitina. The railroad company transformed Cordova from a small cannery port originally known as Eyak into a busy shipping terminal. Finally the ore played out. As the winter of 1938 approached, the last train arrived in Cordova, leaving in its wake a string of ghost towns.
The east coast industrialist interests locally known as the Alaska Syndicate built the CRNW Railway mainly to exploit a series of high-grade copper deposits found in Bonanza Ridge in August of 1900. The search for this copper can be traced back to the time of the Russian occupation of the coastline of Alaska in the previous century. But it was with the expedition of Lt. Henry Allen--the first official representative of the U.S. Army to successfully breech the coastline and enter the interior--that the search for copper really began.
Lieutenant Allen concluded that it was essential to seek the approval of the supreme Ahtna chief, Nicolai, Tyone of Taral, if he was to successfully complete the expedition. Nicolai was not at Taral on the Copper River as Lt. Allen had hoped. Instead the young chief was to be found at his home village on the confluence of what is now Dan Creek and the Nizina River. The two men made an informal peace between the Ahtna people and the U.S. government which proved to be a lasting one.
The Ahtnas were never a conquered people. They merely stepped out of the way of an unstoppable freight train, then jumped on the rear to join the ride.
It would be difficult to overstate the role of Nicolai--the first and most prominent interior Athabascan chief encountered by the U.S. government. Nicolai’s people saved Lieutenant Allen’s party from almost certain starvation. The chief accompanied Allen’s party through the Copper River country, pointing them toward the headwaters of the Tanana River--the heart of Athabascan country. Nicolai could easily have chosen a hostile approach toward the small U.S. Army group, but he recognized almost immediately the futility of that approach. He knew that life as his people had known it was about to change drastically, regardless of what the chief or his people may have wanted for themselves.
Farthest reaching of all was the chief’s decision to confirm to the lieutenant that a rich lode of copper existed in the mountains north of Nicolai’s C’ena’-tsedi winter camp. When the lieutenant asked about the source of the rich copper, Nicolai simply pointed in the direction of the mountain where fourteen years later, Ed Gates and the Chittyna Exploration Company would lay claim to the Nicolai Prospect.
So it was that Lieutenant Allen noted the possible existence of extensive rich copper formations in the Wrangell Range near the headwaters of the Nizina River. The Klondike gold rush of 1898 brought in the first large wave of white prospectors and settlers. These hardy souls entered the interior by way of the Valdez and Klutina Glaciers. Most came in search of gold, but among them were those who were seeking the source of the legendary copper. These included Edward Gates, Jack Smith and Clarence Warner.
The next year one of Nicolai’s brothers led Ed Gates and his party to the location of the Nicolai Prospect. This was only after ten hours of hard bargaining which resulted in terms that have been misrepresented to this day. The consequences resulting from this single deal would endure for generations.
Continue withEchoes, pt 2
"Legacy of the Chief"